I walked into this beautiful loft apartment, with high ceilings, stunning art, and these absolutely adorable hor dourves on Lafayette Street in Soho. Immediately, I was reminded of the beautiful people and the fantasy of living a luxury life when one of the hosts, an absolutely stunning woman with long curly blonde hair graciously introduced herself by handing me her hand with an effervescent smile.
It was the apartment you fantasize about and see in the movies. These images felt in stark contradiction to the story I was going to hear—the story of Giles Duley, a war photographer, who takes pictures of people who are “not victims but victims of circumstances, ” and who himself had three limbs amputated.
His story condensed—after getting into an accident when he was 18, and being gifted a camera from his godfather, he decided he would be a photographer. He originally intended to pursue documentary photography but found himself taking pictures of his friends’ bands, going to parties and meeting beautiful woman. He took pictures for several well known publications including— GQ, Esquire, The Observer, and Vogue.
However, after ten years he found himself getting very depressed and eventually grew tired and cynical of celebrity culture until one day after a conflict about what a model was going to wear for a shoot, he threw his camera on the bed; it bounced and flew out of the window. He quit and a severe depression set in.
He started looking after a boy as a caretaker with severe autism, 24 hours a day, four days a week and became close friends. He described the boy’s reality like he was living in a cellar and everyone was having a great time, he wanted to join them but didn’t know how to.
The boy self harmed, but his social workers didn’t take his pain seriously until Duley showed them intense picture of the self harm. It was then that he realized that he could use his camera to tell stories; this was the start of his career as a documentary photographer. He began to travel around the world to document the forgotten and marginalized.
He shared many pictures and stories at the talk, but one touched me the most. The Rohingya refugees in Southeast Bangladesh have no access to medical support due to their unofficial status. They are often denied access to medical care from nearby hospitals. This is not a small camp but one with at least 25,000 refugees who suffer from a multitude of illnesses and diseases, respiratory tract infections and skin diseases caused by the horrendous conditions they live in. By all accounts, it is a very hopeless and dire situation.
Duley decided he wanted to take portraits of members of the community. To his surprise there was a long long line of people waiting for him. He panicked. “Do they understand I’m not a doctor?” he asked the leader of the local committee. The man said:
“”They know,”he replied, “but for now a photographer is all they have. At least you can show people.”
This reminded me of why stories are so important to be told and shared. Stories remind people that they matter, and their life is important.
Here is one of the pictures:
While in Afghanistan he stepped on a landmine and in that moment his life changed forever. He lost three of his limbs. What inspired me most about his story was how how he chose to react.
Duley said, “Two days after the blast, I was in and out of consciousness, and the first person I saw was my sister, and the only words I said to her were, ‘I am still a photographer.’ It was always, for me, about getting back to whom I was, and my identity was so wrapped up in being a photographer.” He could have easily played the victim, but instead, he chose to look at the situation differently.
This is a picture that Giles took of himself. He says “I wanted to be photographed the way I photographed others. I was not a victim, I was a victim of circumstance. I’m incredibly lucky. I see myself a better person than I was years ago. And yes, I lost my legs, I lost my arm, but inside I was exactly the same.”
He shared how getting hurt helped him be empathic towards people who went through similar circumstances (see picture below) and gave him an advantage other photographers did not have. Again, instead of feeling sorry for himself, he used what happened to him, as a positive and to further his ability to connect with the people he photographed.
I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from Duley, “Life goes on, all around the world, people are going through terrible things. Everyone of us is going through our own terrible experience, if we share those we can inspire each other to get through theirs’.”
Duley reminded us that everyone can do something to change the world. “Although I can feel helpless, I can use my skills as a photographer; everyone in this room can make a small change.”
Click here for a wonderful article by Giles about his first time going back to Afghanistan.
Below is a video of Giles giving a TED talk.